There may never be a wrong time to release a film about ethics in journalism, which is a depressing reality in itself, but with the imminent arrival of yet another Avengers film, Kill the Messenger does offers us a chance to see Jeremy Renner at his best.
Playing the role of Gary Webb, a crusading journalist from the “they don’t make like ’em any more” mould, Renner embodies everything we want our news messengers to be. Based on a true story, the reality of the situation is, as one character puts it, that “Some stories are too true to be told”. Having hastily moved his family to California for past misdemeanours, Gary Webb soon rises up the ranks at the San Jose Mercury News. While working on a story, he is given some startling evidence by a cocaine trafficker’s girlfriend (Paz Vega). Upon further investigation, it becomes clear that she is telling the truth: there is a direct link between the C.I.A and Central American drug runners, the funds of which were being used to fight communist-favouring governments. In the mid-nineties, with the internet still in its infancy, the story is printed and becomes a sensation. Everybody wants a piece of the action, and Webb himself becomes a minor celebrity. His wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) is initially supportive, but as time passes, the reporter finds himself becoming a bigger part of the story than he had bargained for. He is smeared, and his account of interviews he has conducted begin to be questioned. His editors (Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leave him out to hang, the paranoia engulfs the Webb family home.
This truly is one of the best films about a profession that has been thoroughly documented on screen for decades. We have a tendency to look back, especially in the media, to a non-existent golden age. No one would really think that the mid-nineties was that era for investigative journalism, but here is proof that it was. The film begins by hinting at uncovering a huge conspiracy which goes all the way to Washington, but once that is revealed, the true nature of the political and journalistic beast is unleashed on an unsuspecting victim.
The performances are universally excellent. Various familiar faces crop up throughout the film to deliver some form of sage advice, but it is Renner’s unwavering commitment to the cause that shines through. His exasperation at what is going on around him is mesmeric. The limitations of the time, from slow internet speeds to grainy TV coverage actually serve this modern viewing perfectly. There is nostalgia for sure, but also a sense of inevitability as we can’t help but relate what we see to today’s news stories.
When vindication comes, of sorts, it is laced with the sort of bitter-sweet irony that can only be truly acknowledge decades later. Americans will know the outcome in greater detail than your average British viewer, but it matters little.
The locations and costumes are brilliantly captured. There is no show-boating in setting the time or place, and as a result there is an absolute conviction in it all. Having worked on some of the best TV shows of recent years, director Michael Cuesta does a fantastic job of getting to the meat of the subject matter even when it isn’t actually the core of the story. Drug-running and high-level conspiracies are one thing, but the destruction of one man’s career are rarely covered in such entertaining detail.
If the story slows in the final act, and heads to a fizzling end rather than a bombastic finale, then that is because this is real-life and not a fairytale. The end credits make this perfectly clear.